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The commodification of education

David Noble's essay "Digital Diploma Mills," written in the 1990s, is a brilliant and still timely critique of the automation and commodification of higher education. The book version is here, though I've only read the essay version. At the end of the essay I was struck by the following eloquent, humanistic remarks on the meaning of both education and commodification. His distinction between training and education is essential.


In spelling out what is wrong with the digital diploma mills of today, it is important to spell out what is meant by both “education” and “commodification,” since these terms are often used with little precision. To begin with, education must be distinguished from training (which is arguably more suitable for distance delivery) because the two are so often conflated. In essence, training involves the honing of a person’s mind so that that mind can be used for the purposes of someone other than that person. Training thus typically entails a radical divorce between knowledge and the self. Here knowledge is usually defined as a set of skills or a body of information designed to be put to use, to become operational, only in a context determined by someone other than the trained person; in this context the assertion of self is not only counterproductive, it is subversive to the enterprise. Education is the exact opposite of training in that it entails not the disassociation but the utter integration of knowledge and the self, in a word, self-knowledge. Here knowledge is defined by and, in turn, helps to define, the self. Knowledge and the knowledgeable person are basically inseparable.

Education is a process that necessarily entails an interpersonal (not merely interactive) relationship between people—student and teacher (and student and student) that aims at individual and collective self-knowledge. (Whenever people recall their education experiences they tend to remember above all not courses or subjects or the information imparted but people, people who changed their minds or their lives, people who made a difference in their developing sense of themselves. It is a sign of our current confusion about education that we must be reminded of this obvious fact: that the relationship between people is central to education.) Education is a process of becoming for all parties, based upon mutual recognition and validation and centering upon the formation and evolution of identity. The actual content of the education experience is defined by this relationship between people, and the chief determinant of quality education is the establishment and enrichment of this relationship.

Like “education,” the word “commodification” (or “commoditization”) is used rather loosely with regard to education, and some precision may help the discussion. A commodity is something created, grown, produced, or manufactured for exchange on the market. Of course, some things that are bought and sold on the market were not created for that purpose, such as “labor” and land—what the political economist Karl Polanyi referred to as “fictitious commodities.” Most education offerings, although divided into units of credit and exchanged for tuition, are fictitious commodities in that they are not created by the educator strictly with this purpose in mind. Here we will be using the term “commodity” not in this fictitious, more expansive sense but rather in its classical, restricted sense to mean something expressly created for market exchange. The commoditization of higher education, then, refers to the deliberate transformation of the education process into commodity form for the purpose of commercial transaction.

The commodification of education requires the interruption of this fundamental education process and the disintegration and distillation of the education experience into discrete, reified, and ultimately salable things or packages of things. In the first step toward commodification, attention is shifted from the experience of the people involved in the education process to the production and inventorying of an assortment of fragmented “course materials”: syllabi, lectures, lessons, exams (now referred to in the aggregate as “content”). As anyone familiar with higher education knows, these common instruments of instruction barely reflect what actually takes place in the education experience and lend an illusion of order and predictability to what is, at its best, an essentially unscripted and undetermined process. Second, these fragments are removed or “alienated” from their original context, the actual education process itself, and from their producers, the teachers, and are assembled as “courses,” which take on an existence independent of and apart from those who created and gave flesh to them. This is perhaps the most critical step in commodity formation. The alienation of ownership of and control over course material (through surrender of copyright) is crucial to this step. Finally, the assembled “courses” are exchanged for a profit on the market, which determines their value, by their “owners,” who may or may not have any relationship to the original creators and participants in the education process. At the expense of the original integrity of the education process, instruction has here been transformed into a set of deliverable commodities, and the end of education has become not self-knowledge but the making of money. In the wake of this transformation, teachers become commodity producers and deliverers, subject to the familiar regime of commodity production in any other industry, and students become consumers of yet more commodities. The relationship between teacher and student is thus reestablished, in an alienated mode, through the medium of the market, and the buying and selling of commodities takes on the appearance of education. But it is, in reality, only a shadow of education, an assemblage of pieces without the whole.

Again, under this new regime, painfully familiar to skilled workers in every industry since the dawn of industrial capitalism, educators confront the harsh realities of commodity production: speed-up, routinization of work, greater work discipline and managerial supervision, reduced autonomy, job insecurity, employer appropriation of the fruits of their labor, and, above all, the insistent managerial pressures to reduce labor costs in order to turn a profit. Thus, the commoditization of instruction leads invariably to the “proletarianization” or, more politely, the “deprofessionalization” of the professoriate discussed above.

But there is a paradox at the core of this transformation. Quality education is labor-intensive; it depends upon a low teacher-student ratio and significant interaction between the two parties—the one utterly unambiguous result of a century of education research. Any effort to offer quality in education must therefore presuppose a substantial and sustained investment in education labor, whatever the medium of instruction. The requirements of commodity production, however, undermine the labor- intensive foundation of quality education (and with it, quality products people will willingly pay for). Pedagogical promise and economic efficiency are thus in contradiction. Here is the achilles heel of distance education. In the past as well as the present, distance educators have always insisted that they offer a kind of intimate and individualized instruction not possible in the crowded, competitive environment of the campus. Theirs is an improved, enhanced education. To make their enterprise profitable, however, they have been compelled to reduce their instructional costs to a minimum, thereby undermining their pedagogical promise. The invariable result has been not only a degraded labor force but a degraded product as well.

In his classic 1959 study American Degree Mills for the American Council on Education, Robert Reid described the typical diploma mill as having the following characteristics: “no classrooms,” “faculties are often untrained or nonexistent,” and “the officers are unethical self-seekers whose qualifications are no better than their offerings.” It is an even more apt description of the digital diploma mills now in the making. Quality higher education will not disappear entirely, but it will soon become the exclusive preserve of the privileged, available only to children of the rich and the powerful. For the rest of us a dismal new era of higher education has dawned. In ten years, we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder how we let it happen. That is, unless we decide now not to let it happen.

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